Peer Support Programs and Mental Disabilities

In 2015 I was involved in research with a colleague of mine Dr. Nathan Munn, who was looking at a pilot study in Montana. The pilot study focused of the efficacy of peer support programs and whether they are effective in treating a range of mental disabilities. As I was reading this paper I was reminded of the importance of social influence, as this really is what peer support programs are all about. I pasted the conclusions below and link to the full article can be found at: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.2264.7763.


The Denial of the Social Self

Podcast of this post can be found by clicking here

Human existences centers around our social relationships. Humans by nature are social creatures that depend on a social structure for survival. However, humans are also conscious creatures, and can develop habits and mindsets that are counter to this structure. This leads to conflict such as war, violent crime, and taking advantage of others to feel power within a social hierarchy. There are also other human conditions that often stem from false belief systems of individualism and the self-made “man”. These belief systems often cause individual pain such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, and drives some individuals to want to end their own life. However, the conflict between our nature as social beings and our false belief in individualism and individual strife, is also a natural process. Individuals must feel they have an individual sense of purpose in order to make a meaningful contribution to the social structure that maintains human existence. The term often used for this is human motivation, but again it would not exist without the need for social integration and social purpose. 

So why then if this is a natural process, do I call individualism a “false” system? It is false in the sense that it strips away the importance of the social context and world we live in and places too much emphasis on the individual. False in the sense it exaggerates one aspect of the self and the cost to the other. It also creates a situation in which we become detached from our nature towards things that artificially compensate for our lack of social understanding. An example of this includes the need to make wealth as a primary focus of success. While gaining resources is vital to human survival, human survival does not rely on excessive wealth that overly advantages one person, over the other people who work to create that wealth. The interesting part of this discussion is that even this wealth gain has a social underpinning, as it is used to display the individual’s social power and hierarchy within the social system they exist in. The falsehood is, however, is that wealth is rarely because of the individual, it requires a social system to create wealth. For example, Elan Musk would not be a billionaire without the consumer who buys the products is company produces. Taking this further Musk does not build every one of the electric cars his company makes. No this requires many other individuals to build each car, and in order to provide Musk with the idea that he is the builder we dehumanize the efforts of the other individuals by simply calling them the laborer and workers. In this redefining of Musk, he is not self-made person as we would falsely assume under the philosophy of individualism. Rather he is an individual who took advantage of the social structures within the world and exploits that for his own wealth. 

Elon Musk is just on example, as we do not need to only look at the super wealthy to see our world is not made of just individuals but rather a social system. We can look at institutions such as the family system, governmental, and religious structures. Within in any of these systems individuals can exploit to take individual advantage of the system. This can range from domestic violence justification as the “man is the head of the household” to the pastor who has a million-dollar home justifying it as a “gift for his/her service to god”. These two examples both exploit social systems, by justifying the actions under the misguided philosophy of individualism. So why is individualism so powerful?

I stated at the beginning we have two natural systems that are aimed towards one goal human survival through social structures and systems. The first system is the need to belong, and the second system is the need to feel purposeful and meaningful. The second system is what creates motivation within the individual to become socially relevant. When we “feel” relevant we feel a sense of what is commonly referred to as “power”. In this context power is one’s feeling of being in control and untouchable. It is a protective feeling, because of the problems with individualism, we often feel threat from others instead of seeing others as benign. In order then to protect the self, individuals will often exploit the social system to protect their sense of self often called their ego. The problem with this notion is these threats grow from not understanding the social aspects of the human mind and need. Human conflict does not grow from our social world, rather it grows from a broken system of individualism and the need to protect that aspect of the self-system. Therefore, in the example of wealth, money is not the “root of all evil” it is rather a compensation for our lack of social belonging and denial of our social selves, which then creates the conditions for evil to happen.


Presentation to Southern Arizona Association for Education of Young Children Annual 2020 CONFERENCE:


Link to Apple podcast [CLICK HERE]

Goals of Presentation:

1.Describe the finding of research during COVID-19 crisis on belonging, social connection, and identity. (Describir el hallazgo de la investigación durante la crisis de COVID-19 sobre pertenencia, conexión social e identidad.)

2.Provide an understanding of how identity influence social belonging and how these two experiences relate to loneliness/connection, depression/intention, hopelessness/hopefulness, meaningless/meaningful, self-destructive behaviors/constructive behaviors.  (Proporcione una comprensión de cómo la identidadinfluye en la pertenencia social y cómo estas dos experiencias se relacionan con la soledad / conexión, la depresión / intención, la desesperanza / esperanza, los comportamientos autodestructivos / constructivos sin sentido / significativos.)

3.Describe the influence of lack of belongingness and social connection influence on immune response which relates to mortality and morbidity. (Describir la influencia de la falta de pertenencia y la influencia de la conexión social en la respuesta inmune que se relaciona con la mortalidad y la morbilidad.)

4.Provide tools to increase identity and belongingness through self development and social connection. (Proporcionar herramientaspara aumentar la identidad y la pertenencia a través del desarrollopersonal y la conexión social.)

[ClICK HERE] Presentation Handout

[CLICK HERE] Spanish version of social belonging and loneliness assessment

[CLICK HERE] English version of social belonging and loneliness assessment



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Social Belonging – Beyond a simple emotion

If we look at the majority of psychological research on social belonging we see that it often is reduced to a minor type of emotion that bring a happy feeling when it is there and a sad feeling when it is absent. But over the last few decades we have discovered that social belonging is so much more, in fact, it could be argued that social belonging is the most important part of being human. Much of our knowledge in last couple decades has come from neuroscience which has tried to unlock our knowledge of the social brain.

Studies of our most intimate belonging such as individuals who are romantically in love, have found that love and need to intimately belong are just not mere emotions that can be controlled and manipulated they are basic human drives. The areas of the brain that are active when we are with or reflecting about our intimate partner are the same areas that regulate breathing, hunger, heart rate, and thirst. Indeed the need for intimate connection is a basic biological drive. We find similar findings with other sources of social belonging as well. In fact we are such social being that when we are doing an activity with another person, and are aware of that person and they are aware of us, our brains start to synchronize and mimic each other. This can be seen observing individuals on a first date. If you are a social voyeur like me you may have already done this but if you have not I encourage you to give it a try.

At a restaurant or bar sit and watch people who are meeting each other for the first time. If they like each other their bodies will first orient to each other. If there is a potential for a relationship watch the way they eat and interact, you will see them start to “parrot” each other. Their cups, forks, plates, body positions, breathing, facial expressions all will start mirror each other. While this is not conscious to the individuals it is very apparent to the outside observer. If you are at a place where there is dancing, watch the individuals dance with each other. They will after a few missteps start to partner dance with each other as if they are seasoned experts. Their steps will be in sync their body movements will move gracefully as one moveable object. We can observe the same thing in less intense relationships such as when friends get together or when a group becomes committed to an action. This may seem very negative to bring up at this moment, but even mob behaviors follow these similar synchronize patterns.

Additional evidence of the importance of social belonging is how much of our brain we commit to our social world. Scientist have always felt that the frontal cortex – more specifically – the pre-frontal cortex is what gives rise to human’s intellectual and analytical qualities. Indeed, it is what allows us to do math or read or look at a complex problem and provide several potential solutions. However, upon closer evaluation, very little area of the pre-frontal cortex actually is dedicated to this type of problem solving. Indeed the majority of our pre-frontal cortex becomes active when we are thinking of our social world. In fact, Dr. Lieberman a renowned Social Neuroscientist has coined the social system as the default network system. Not only does this system becomes active when we thinking of social relationships, it becomes active when we are told to think of nothing at all or to stop some type of math problem. The means that even when we are not thinking about our social world, we are thinking about our social world.

Studies of psychopaths, which are individuals who use others as if they were non-human and often take horrible advantage of others has shown damage to the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex acts as a regulator for our social behavior. Many of us have had that moment where we want to slap or hit a person in the face. I would almost guess that every human being will have this experience at least once in their life time. The difference between most people and psychopaths is that it is our prefrontal cortex that provide us with the ability to decide “no I am not going to do that because of XYZ”. This pathway that inhibits this impulse tends to be absent in psychopaths. Again providing evidence of our social brain.

So here is our evidence from our brain, what about our behaviors. Well we can see that our need to belong is a drive from human isolation experiments. We find that when a person is given everything they need to biologically survive: food, water, and shelter. When they are denied human contact their body starts to die as if it was starving or dying from thirst. This unfortunately has lead us to one of our most effective types of punishment which is social isolation. In our not so distant past, being with others was a means of survival and being kicked out of a community was almost a guaranteed death sentence. Hence, when people “acted out” they were simply kicked out of the village. Because during this time it was believed that people acted evil, because they were possessed by demons, when kicked out of the village into the woods, this is where the myth of the haunted forest outside the village has its origins. These myths were also used to make sure no one left the village as well, a form of double edged social control sword.

Into modern times, our prison systems use isolation for behavior management. Unfortunately the missing part of this is whenever you “cage” a human being and isolate them from others, humans become aggressive and violent – does not matter if you are a criminal or a clergy – put someone in captivity and they will become the worse version of them. Hence in these conditions the only means of social control become the threat or use of more aggressive means such as weapons. Indeed it is interesting when we look at our prison system. We have spent centuries using the punishment method – understand this logic – punish someone, all sudden they will realize what they did wrong and never do it again. That like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to learn how to breath like humans do. Instead, we find that in some countries and a few in the United States that use social connection as a basis of their correction efforts they do not have the recidivism or over crowding that United States system have. Indeed countries with the lowest criminal recidivism rates are ones where the inmates are treated like humans and not caged animals.

If you think about the happiest moments in our lives they rarely happen when we are alone. They always involve someone else. Indeed if we think about the most happy events they tend to represent the height of human connection. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, a work promotion, buying a house, etc etc all are intensely social events. Some the saddest moments in our lives tend to be when we have the threat of losing someone or the actual loss of someone. Even couples who have amicable divorces experience loneliness and sadness. The loss of a job is a loss of identity and social connection. The loss of a loved one. In our modern time forgetting one’s smartphone at home when going to work can bring some people so much pain they rather risk being fired at work, and go back home to get their phone. The smartphone is a social device, indeed it is our social outsourcing partner. It allows us to connect at a distance, it makes sure we don’t forget our social obligations. These outsourcing devises have become so integral in our need for social connection and belonging, we have had to ban them when our cognitive and thinking resources should be else where such as when we are driving. Bottom line everything that brings us pleasure and pain our social in nature. When that pain becomes too much we will try to seek out non-social means to alleviates them such as using drugs, hoarding behaviors, become obsessed with non-human objects, become materialistic, and in some cases act out towards the social order.

Beyond biology and behavior there are also psychological and emotional aspects of belonging. Susan Fiske identified four psychological motives for belonging: understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trusting. Understanding and control are relatively cognitive and rational processes and within our self-concept model would be evaluated through self-awareness. Self-enhancement and trusting are relatively emotionally/affective based and are more susceptible to irrational thinking and are evaluated more by the self-esteem processes in the self-concept model.

Understanding is our need to have a shared experience and make a situation predictable. Controlling is our need to feel we understand why something happened and what the outcome would should be. When I explained this to my students, I often use the example of asking the students what they would do if I jumped on a table and started to crazy dance. Then I ask the students what would they do? The usual answer is “think you are crazy and just lost it”. Then I explained, what you most likely to do is within the first six seconds you would look to the right then look to the left, and pay attention to other’s reaction. Why? because what they are looking for is (1) am I experiencing the same thing everyone else is (understanding), and (2) what should our reaction be (controlling).

The two more emotional/affective based needs for belonging are self-enhancement and trusting. I am going to start with trusting, because this is not the “normal” type of trust we usually associate with this word. The “normal” trust is when we have a reciprocal relationship with someone and we have this feeling that if we get stuck they be there to help. This type of trust is usually developed in infancy. When baby cries, mom comes and feeds baby, baby is satisfied smiles, mom smiles back, and they have that reciprocal positive emotion assuring next time the baby cries mom will return. While this is a important type of trust and necessary for the development of healthy relationships, the type of trust we are talking about here is the need to see other a benign and non-threatening. In any social situation either consciously or unconsciously the first thing we do is scan the room for threats. Once we determine where is safe and where is threatening, this is when we determine where we will sit and who we will sit with. This is this type of trust. As I said though this is not always rationally based. For example I am not a biker and my only exposure to bikers is what I have seen on T.V. and so walking into a biker bar would be very threatening to me and I probably leave promptly.

In that same vein there are people who find individuals who commit crimes as more safe than individuals who do not commit crimes. This is not rationally based either, and can be seen by looking at research on adopting children out of the foster care system when the child is older than ten years old. If you talk to these children who want to be adopted many report wanting the safe and loving environment normally associated with happy and healthy children and families. Yet when put in that environment greater than 90% will return to their family of origins when they turn 18. Most reporting they did so because they felt more comfortable and safe, even though it is actually can be more dangerous and risky.

Self-enhancement is the need to see one’s self worthy and improvable. But the only reliable source on this is our social world and the feedback it provides. While this may seem simple it is not, as I stated this can be lead a stray as well and trusting. For example a child who is labeled as bad and is constantly told they are a bad child on a rational level you would think that under self-enhancement their motivation would be to become a “good child”, so bringing their behaviors to light should motivate the child not to engage in those behaviors. If you thought that I would encourage you to read the sections on identity again. Who we are like and who best fits our behaviors is the identity we take on in our personal and social world. Therefore the positive motivation for a “bad child” is not to become a “good child” no rather it is to become the baddest and worst child they can be. This allows them to have congruency between their behavior and what people tell them they are in this world. And I hope from our discussion on incarceration you cannot punish someone into being good. Again what makes these difference in evaluation: the social situation a person is raised in and is currently experiencing. What happens when we do not meet our belonging needs? This is where we are heading – into the world of loneliness.


Personal Reflections on Inequality in United States: Myth or Fact.

Ever since I started college and began learning about historical events that occurred in the United States that were not taught to me in High School and grade school I have often wondered what this thing they call “prejudice” and “discrimination” really was and did it really still exist in the United States? Unfortunately, until I could come to terms with my own white privilege and place I was raised which consisted of 90% or more white people, my pursuit was only limited to scholarly understanding. Since that time, I have read 1000s of articles and books on the topic of race and inequality in the United States. When I say 1000s, I am not talking about the crap you find on the internet with a google search, YouTube, Facebook memes, and FOX or CNN news. No, I am talking about articles and books written by individuals who have devoted their entire life to understanding race and inequality issues in the United States. Indeed, some of my favorite are 

  • “Man, Interrupted” Phillip Zimbardo, 
  • “White Trash” Nancy Isenberg”, 
  • “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, 
  • “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the Twenty-First Century” Kristin Seefeldt, 
  • “Delusions of Gender”, Cordelia Fine, 
  • “The Self Illusion” Bruce Hood
  • “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” Andrea Smith

And some of my classic favorites include: 

  • “Drunken Comportment” MacAndrew and Edgerton
  • “The Nature of Prejudice” Gordon Allport
  • “Resolving Social Conflict” Kirt Lewin
  • “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl

These are just a few examples of the extent I have went to try and understand this thing we call prejudice, inequality, and injustice. The question I have always asked up to the last several years is – why can I only understand this from an intellectual perspective? To answer this question, it has taken a lot of introspection between what I call my personal enlightenment years and my lived experience until that point. 

To explain this I feel I need to give the reader an understanding of my lived experience as an American before my years of what I call enlightenment which started in earnest in 2014 and 2017, but has some roots in experiences I had in 2010 and 2011 when I moved from Southeast Idaho to Arizona. I was born and raised in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, where the population distribution was greater than 85% white and provided very little comparative experience to other people of color, differing cultural background, and identity differences such as gender and sexual orientation which were well hidden due to cultural and predominate religious reasons. My family would be considered working class with my dad working most of his years in construction and my mom managing restaurants. I would say this experience did provide me with some personal attributes I do find important such as the meaning of hard work and earning your keep. However, due to lack of exposure to the wider American experience it led me to the believe in the myth of the “self-made man”, a myth which states that any person who is willing to work hard can make it in America. I can go on about this myth and explanation why it is a myth but instead I would encourage you to read “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg and “The Self Illusion” by Bruce Hood. In my family history my father always made jokes about the “Mexican spick” and how they are where they are because they are lazy. Because I had such a strong mother, who throughout my childhood was the strength and glue that held our family together, I was ignorant to the strife of women in America. I came to believe that prejudice and inequality were a thing of the past and was nothing more than good Hollywood. However, when I entered college in the 90s I took some history classes and psychology classes which made me reevaluate these perspectives, hence my intellectual journey. But it would not be until my years of enlightenment that I really did not have a personal understanding of the intellectual understanding I had come to know. 

Pre-Enlightened Experiences

To say that over a course of a few years I became enlightened would be a mistake. So, I like to provide some lived experiences that I believe allowed me to open my heart and mind later in my life. My first was a college experience in which I became a close friend to a co-worker at a college job I had. One day when I was entering work he asked me to come meet someone; upon approach I thought this person must be his male friend or maybe a brother by the affection they displayed at greeting each other. But he introduced him as his partner and proceeded to tell me about their relationship. To be honest, I do not remember much of it because I had a belief shattering moment. Because in my family, my father taught that being gay was a learned experience and it is exposure to that lifestyle that made one gay. Yet I had no desire to enter into a romantic relationship with another man? Indeed, we continued to be close friends and I never even developed a romantic interest in same sex – nothing happened. Sometimes I wonder if I was more disappointed in that rather than disconfirming my long-held family bias. 

Other lived experience in priming me for an understanding of prejudice and inequality, were my years working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, working with female rapists and murders in prison, and issues related to working with children and families of childhood sexual abuse. However, this work was always done in the safe comfort of the white community I was raised in. 

The Enlightenment Years

So, I want to define enlightenment, because this does not mean complete understanding, nor does it mean I have lived the harsh conditions many individuals do in the United States especially. This simply means, for me, I now have the experience that reinforce my intellectual inquiry and solidifies my belief system. I would like to start this conversation first with some of my most recent experiences. For the past three years – going on four – I am in a relationship and now married to the love of my life who is also an American born Mexican. I also have been working for a Tribal college in Southern Arizona. While my first experience with racism was in 2011 to 2013 when I lived in Yuma Arizona and half my friends and family unfriended me on social media because I started posting pictures of friends and women I dated that were American-Mexican, I did not really feel personally the effect until I fell in love with my wife Elsa. When Elsa and I started dating she warned me about the “looks” we would get, and the negative attitude people would have. Because at the time I was so infatuated with her I really did not give that much thought. It was not until I started to pay more attention to our surroundings that I came to understand what she was stating. 

Walking together in Northside of Tucson Arizona. The first time I really understood what Elsa was trying to say is when we walked through a store on the Northside of Tucson Arizona which is predominantly a white community. Walking I looked around and saw the looks of shame on other men’s faces, the snickering of white females as they looked Elsa and I up and down and shaking their heads. I remember walking by a couple who looked at us in disgust and then hid their faces as they engaged in derogatory talk about Elsa and I thinking we could not hear it. I have also felt the institutional racism that I had read about in many books and articles. Although Elsa and I have similar credits scores, similar disposable income, and both have good paying jobs when going to get loans for a house and a car the mortgage broker and the car dealer both recommended that only I apply for the loan because “it will look more appealing to the potential lenders”. 

Probably the worse experience I have had when experiencing the prejudice in my wife’s life is when I got in an argument on Facebook with my brother, which started off advocating for better ways of dealing with children’s behavior instead of resorting to physical punishment. During this argument my brother stated, “I would shoot any brown person who came on to my property”. This was a direct threat to my wife and my stepchildren, and I have since disowned this brother. But my brother’s attitude is a good example when someone who has limited social experience and worldly experience thinks they are right and just. Another experience is when Elsa, myself, and my two of my stepchildren went to a party which was predominantly white in a white community. Because my stepchildren are amazing people they immediately started helping prepare food after a while some white guests at the party came and asked them when the food was going to be ready and they should hurry. Later they admitted that they thought they were catering for the party and not guests, because of their appearance. While I can give several other examples, I hope the reader understands this is an issue. Working for a tribal college I have also come to a better understanding of racism in the United States. 

I can tell several stories of racial injustice working for a tribal college, but because I do not have the individuals who were involved permission, I will focus on the strange response I get when I tell people I work for a tribal college. First of all, I want to let the reader know why I teach and work in higher education, specifically community-based colleges. The reason is because I love education, specifically I am passionate about the study or psychology which is the scientific inquiry of behavior and mental processes. Because I come from a working-class background I want people from a similar background to have my experiences I have with higher education, hence I chosen the community college setting. I did not get into higher education for social justice reasons or because I saw some great inequalities in education. However, over course of my teaching experience I have come to advocate for these issues. Especially when needing to confront the limitations of our knowledge and educational system which tends to be WEIRD (western, industrial, rich, and democratically oriented). In 2017 I started working for a tribal college, I have come to appreciate the meaning and purpose of this type of college. I have also come to appreciate the tribe that I work for and their customs and beliefs. This experience has opened my mind to different ways of understanding knowledge and experience not based in the WEIRD mindset of western education. In other words, the people I work for have probably taught and enlightened me far more than what I have to offer them. But what has surprised me is the response of non-natives when I tell them I work for a tribal college. Here are just a few statements I have heard:

  • “that must be incredibly hard work, working for ‘those’ people”
  • “they are fortunate to have you, hopefully you will make a difference”
  • “don’t you think your talents could be better spent teaching others”
  • “they are so lucky to have you”
  • “make sure you know you will only change ‘things’ in spoonful not shovel full”

While I like to think this is a positive reflection on me, it is more of a reference to beliefs about Native Americans. In the four other colleges and universities I have worked for I never heard these statements, and really is a reflection of the overt and covert biases we hold. 

So, what is the purpose of me telling you this story and me rambling on about my experiences? Because at one point in my life I truly thought racial and social injustice were a myth and something of the past. I believed from an egocentric perspective that it was the individual who determined there future and purpose in life. However, my educational and personal experience has led me to understand that a person’s place (failures and successes) in life is an interaction between many factors. Indeed, in equation terms a person’s place is a function of the interaction between the individual, social context, economic resources, and cultural beliefs and attitude. It is not until we step out of our simple and self-comforting space and understand that lived experience is a complex combination of many factors that we truly can understand the problems we face as a country and a world. 

loneliness, Uncategorized

How Social Identity Influences Social and Emotional Loneliness

Dissertation Results on: “How Social Identity Influences Social and Emotional Loneliness”.
In my research, I tested whether or not individuals will evaluate their level of loneliness when thinking about their identity as tied to a group (in this case being a college student) versus thinking about one’s personal qualities, or two other control conditions. I found that when individuals are asked to write five qualities of being a college student their level loneliness is significantly less than the other control conditions and almost half as lonely when compared to writing down five personal qualities.
Why does this matter?
Recently, several experts in the field of psychology and medicine are calling loneliness a modern public health problem that is occurring on a scale that has not been seen since loneliness started being measured in the 1920s. Along with the associated negative outcomes such as mortality rates, increase the risk of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, obesity, diabetes, and of course increased the risk of mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thought. Indeed in my research 53% of participants stated “more or less”, “yes”, or “absolutely yes” to the following statement “I experience a general sense of emptiness”. However, very little research, outside the clinical setting, has looked at how to reduce loneliness within the immediate situational context. This research was one of the first to look at the immediate situational variable (thinking of social identity) to see if the situation can influence one’s level of loneliness. Indeed, this research suggested that by focusing on qualities of a social nature decreases a person’s evaluation of emotional loneliness (the evaluation of not having enough significant emotional connections with others) and social loneliness (the evaluation of not have a sufficient number of social connections).
Another aspect of this research is that it supports the theoretical assumption that emotions are more dependent on the situation the person is in, rather than emotions being something that is transient and is independent of the situation. The last important aspect of this research, which is discipline specific, is that it is the first to experimentally test the relations between a group process and emotional state such as loneliness, to see if group process influences one’s emotional outcome, effectively bridging two fields within psychology – the study of intra/intergroup processes and emotions experimentally. However, because this is novel research and first to experimentally test these variables together, further research and replication are needed, to see if these findings hold to the scrutiny of the scientific process.
For anyone who is interested I have provided a link to the abstract and downloadable copy of the full dissertation: https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/dissertations/5772/